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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                              79
had been polished by his hand and which always ac-
companied him on his long journeys.
He went out without saying a word to Alexei.
17
Meresyev was in such a state that he did not notice
the departure of his host. He was unconscious the whole
of the next day, and came to only on the third day, when
the sun was already high in the sky and a bright and
solid beam of sunlight, piercing the grey, stratified smoke
of the hearth, stretched through the whole dugout from
the skylight to Alexei's feet, intensifying the gloom rather
than dispersing it.
There was nobody in the dugout. Varya's low, husky
voice was heard through the door. Evidently busy over
something, she was singing an old song that was popular
in this forest region. It was a song about a lonely ash-
tree that was longing to go over to an oak that also stood
lonely some distance away.
Alexei had heard this song more than once before; it
was sung by the girls who had come in merry groups from
the surrounding villages to level and clear the airfield.
He liked the slow and mournful melody. Before, however,
he had not paid attention to the words, and in the bustle
of army life they had slipped through his mind without
leaving any impression. But now they emerged from
the lips of this young, large-eyed woman full of such
tender sentiment, and they expressed so much real and
not merely poetical, feminine longing, that Alexei at once
felt the full depth of the melody and realised how much
Varya the ash-tree longed for her oak.
.. .But the ash-tree is not fated
By the lonely oak to stay,
iis clear she must, poor orphan,
Alone for ages sway...
sang Varya, and in her voice was felt the bitterness of
real tears. When she stopped singing, Alexei could
picture her sitting outside under the trees flooded with
spring sunlight and her large, round, longing eyes full
of tears. He felt a tickling in his own throat and an